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Berlin Bulletin: Scholz in DC — Power lessons — Auto wars

Oct 07, 2023

A weekly newsletter on German politics, with news and analysis on the policies and people that shape the post-Merkel era.

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SCHOLZ ON TOUR: Olaf Scholz is in Washington today — without us, or any accompanying press or bigger delegation, as he embarked on a mission dear to him: Rub shoulders with the leader of the free world; the other one, if you ask the German chancellor. The core part of the visit is a one-on-one without even any advisers, living up to the reputation of both leaders to develop their policies on their own, without overly relying on aides, and very much out of their own world view — plus, in Scholz's case, a feeling to know things better than just about anyone.

They have more things in common: Neither U.S. President Joe Biden nor the chancellor have of late let slip any doubt about their continued support for Ukraine — more remarkable in Scholz's case; both appear to be careful enough to not break out in war enthusiasm, trying to scale support and weapons donations to the threats posed by the aggressor, making it clear they treat it as Russia's war against Ukraine, not the West. Also, lastly, both appear to think it's the other one who should do more on Ukraine.

But it's likely to not be all shmoozy between the two: Relations with China will play a key role. The U.S. is reportedly consulting with allies on whether to jointly impose sanctions on Beijing if China supplies weapons to Russia, something that would put Germany in a tight spot given its strong trade relations with China.

Sanctions for China? Some in Scholz's own Social Democratic Party already are signalling openness to the potential move. "Should China indeed decide to provide direct military support for Russia's war of aggression, which is contrary to international law, we will consult and decide on the necessary responses in close coordination with our allies in the EU and G7," Michael Roth, who chairs the Bundestag's Foreign Affairs Committee, told POLITICO, noting that in the EU, this requires unanimity. "In fact, this would put China on the same level as Iran, against which the EU recently imposed sanctions, as a supplier of weapons," Roth remarked.

Proof, please: Europeans are careful and cautious before they agree to follow the American push on China. EU diplomats and officials speaking to POLITICO said they wanted to see proof for the claims advanced by U.S. administration officials. "We have not seen on our side any concrete evidence of [Chinese plans to deliver arms] so far," one EU official said. The debate is likely to continue after Scholz with the next European visitor to D.C.: Next Friday, it's European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's turn to sit down with Biden. Read the story here by my colleagues.

ADVANCED CLASS: Franziska Giffey, Berlin's incumbent mayor, showed once more her talent for surprise attacks on her competitors. On Wednesday, when Greens and the Left were still believing they could simply carry on with their three-party coalition despite historic losses in the state election last month, the SPD leader offered formal coalition talks to the winner, the Christian Democratic Union, which would lead the government; an offer confirmed by her wider party leadership — a significant step in the process.

Rude awakening: It was a cold shower for the Left, which lost its only option to cling to power. The Greens were outraged as they reckoned the preliminary talks on continuing the left-wing alliance were on a good track and hoped ideological glue would keep it together. The CDU, meanwhile, succeeded in breaking up the incumbent coalition and on Thursday formally accepted Giffey's offer. There's a good chance for its leader Kai Wegner to become the new mayor, an office on the rank of a German state premier. Back in December, prominent members of his own party questioned his ability to campaign, let alone win.

Quite the move: Giffey, who had insisted as recently as last week that a majority makes a government, not the fact that one party is 10 points ahead, accepted defeat — presenting it as a gracious move to be content with being junior partner. She blinked first — before the Greens, who were courted by the CDU as well, appeared to have even thought about doing the same.

On a closer look: Chances for Giffey aren't that bad to achieve yet another re-invention of herself, as a hands-on senator with the important portfolio that the coalition partner's leader can expect; as a pragmatic politician who, in the humble service of democracy, doesn't hold on to power; as an interested observer in Wegner's first time in high office — his most prominent post so far was spokesman on construction policy for the CDU group in the Bundestag. In short, Giffey would look like the natural candidate for the next election, just three years from now due to the fact the vote had to be re-run after a chaotic first attempt to hold a ballot back in 2021.

Risky move: Her SPD's notoriously leftist youth organization announced "resistance" to Giffey's plan, insisting to keep riding a dead horse. Also, the party base will have to agree to any potential coalition agreement with the CDU. The other risk is that the Greens, who ended up only 53 votes behind the SPD — in a city of 3.6 million people — could make Wegner an offer he can't refuse.

Adding insult to injury: The SPD has rebutted the Green lead candidate Bettina Jarasch's insistence that "there were no irreconcilable differences" during the exploratory talks. We’ve "tended to get signals that goals that were important to us are being put into perspective," said Giffey on Thursday. An internal SPD paper that found its way to the media, should do the last trick to disavow the competitor: It reported from the talks that the SPD's claim to leadership had been called into question by the Greens — and that there were "considerable doubts about the seriousness of their ability to reach an agreement."

AUTO WARS: Last year, the German government backed the new CO2 emission standards, which mandate only zero-emission sales of new cars and vans from 2035. Now, Transport Minister Volker Wissing, from the Free Democratic Party, warns that Germany could withhold its support for the file unless the Commission presents a plan to allow cars with combustion engines to run on e-fuels — synthetic fuels — after 2035. Read the whole story here.

Berlin vs. Brussels: On Wednesday, Wissing said at a business conference that despite a Commission promise to submit such a proposal, "it isn't there yet … That's why we don't think the time is ripe for a decision, at least not for approval." On Thursday, Green state secretary for economic affairs Sven Giegold agreed with Wissing, saying that a solution must be found for combustion engines — outside the fleet limits.

Wissing supports e-fuels: Wissing announced that "at any rate, I can't imagine agreeing to a solution that doesn't guarantee technology openness," referring to e-fuels that he perceives as fundamental to make the existing fleet of cars with combustion engine climate neutral. In Germany, e-fuels were allowed by the government earlier this week and were also mentioned in the coalition agreement.

Decision postponed: Berlin's abstention would effectively amount to a veto and be a hard pill to swallow for Germany's environment ministry, led by Green minister Steffi Lemke. A spokesperson said that the new legislation is "sensible, necessary and smart because it is a major step toward climate neutrality in the EU," and offers planning certainty for carmakers. The approval of the new standards requires a qualified majority. Berlin alone couldn't block that, but Poland, Bulgaria and Italy appear also opposed to a combustion-engine end date. Today, the Swedish presidency of the Council decided to postpone the formal sign-off, originally scheduled for March 7, "to a later Council meeting."

HEATED DEBATES: Economics Minister Robert Habeck and Building Minister Klara Geywitz want to stop new installations of oil and gas heating systems from 2024 on. A leaked draft law stated that, according to an agreement reached by the coalition last year, from 2024 onwards, every newly installed heating system is to be powered by 65 percent renewable energies.

Nein, says the opposition: "This is the completely wrong approach," said Alexander Dobrindt, chairman of the CSU parliamentary group. He added that this was once again a case of "typical Green prohibitionist politics."

One step back: Criticism also came from the coalition partner FDP, with Finance Minister Lindner telling Bild that "the draft was well-intentioned in terms of climate policy, but economically and socially the echo is devastating." In a partial pushback, Habeck said in an interview with Handelsblatt that "if the old gas heater still works, it can stay in. If it's broken, it can be repaired. If it is no longer repairable, there are practicable interim solutions." For this purpose, he announced assistance and tax incentives. However, the minister added that if something new is needed, "one should no longer invest in old fossil systems."

SCHROEDINGER’S TIKTOK: How can a ministry ban the TikTok app from its official phones and simultaneously run a popular account on the platform? Well, ask the German health ministry. While European institutions increasingly ban the Chinese-owned social media app and several German ministries restrict TikTok on official phones, Karl Lauterbach's health ministry currently operates a 144,800-follower-strong TikTok account.

No official use — verified profile: "TikTok is not installed or used for official purposes," the health ministry told POLITICO when asked for clarification. But the account is verified and regularly updated with content featuring health minister Lauterbach. A recent video from January 20 is titled "Ask your question to Karl Lauterbach directly here in the comments."

Who runs the account? TikTok can't be installed on the ministry's phones, said Sebastian Gülde, spokesperson for the health ministry, during a press conference earlier this week. Still, he couldn't explain how the ministry operates the account. Even after repeated inquiries, the ministry remained vague about its operations. It just said that "the use is not prohibited" and that it runs the TikTok account with multiple phones that aren't connected to the ministry's servers.

Alles klar — but the government? When POLITICO asked the government spokesperson at a press conference, he said that "there is … a certain set of apps that we can install on a work phone, and TikTok is not one of them." When it comes to using the app in order to reach the wider public, the spokesperson said that "so far, we have decided not to have our own presence on TikTok." Well, a clear Nein sounds different. Louis Westendarp and Gabriel Rinaldi have more about other German ministries’ dealings with TikTok here.

COALITION WOES: A long and growing list of disputes among the governing coalition partners — on climate, money, and their way to work together — led to a lot of naming and shaming on commentary pages this week. Here's a selection of uncomfortable opining for every party.

Poor, poor Greens! The liberal Free Democrats "are making a public ruckus with great gusto," writes Anja Krüger in the taz newspaper, referencing recent climate policy debates in particular. "They do not seek understanding in the coalition. They are creating a mood, not a policy," she writes. "FDP leader Christian Lindner is relying on a clientele that he believes has a passionate relationship with combustion cars and considers nature conservation to be frippery … This is fatal for the SPD and the Greens. They have to reckon with the FDP playing up every step, no matter how small, in the climate-friendly transformation into a culture war."

‘Crowbar approach’: That view from Berlin-Kreuzberg is not universally shared across the country. "The best thing about Habeck's plan to introduce a ban on new oil and gas heating systems … is that it will not come into force in this form," Georg Anastasiadis writes in the Münchner Merkur. "This crowbar approach to climate policy is too expensive, not sufficiently open to new technologies and, for many tenants in particular, too anti-social."

Too far: The Schwäbische Zeitung from Ravensburg agrees. "In a former life, Robert Habeck wrote children's books. The new ideas from the economics and climate minister's house sound a bit like they come from a green fairy tale land," Jochen Schlosser writes. "His draft building energy law contains a lot of well-intentioned wishful thinking, but all too often it is based on unrealistic assumptions…. Habeck's dirigisme insults the intelligence of homeowners — and goes decidedly too far."

Where's Scholz when you need him: "The political handling of the situation could be better," writes Markus Decker for the RND group of local papers. "Greens and Liberals have almost nothing in common in terms of domestic policies … The SPD and its chancellor, on the other hand, like to watch when the two parties become wedged together – a very special kind of leadership," he etches. "It relies on wear and tear of the partners."

GOVERNMENT MEETING: On Sunday, the government will convene at Meseberg Castle for two days once Scholz is back from the U.S. The meeting offers time and peace "perhaps to clarify one or the other topic on the sidelines, where there could be slight friction, also with each other," said government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit. Several guests are expected, including Commission President von der Leyen. A press conference with Chancellor Scholz, Robert Habeck and Christian Lindner is planned at 2 p.m. on Monday to conclude the meeting.

CLIMATE CONSEQUENCES: On Monday, the Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW) will host a virtual workshop on the topic to discuss the financial consequences of climate change in Germany. A project commissioned by the Economics Ministry and the Environment Ministry has researched the macroeconomic costs of damage and adaptation and shown which cost dimensions cannot yet be assessed. Starting at 9:30 a.m., the project results will be presented and discussed.

EQUAL PAY AND WOMEN’S DAY: Tuesday is Equal Pay Day in Germany. This symbolically marks the day up to which women have been working for free compared to men since the beginning of the year. Various events are taking place in Berlin to mark the occasion. Among other things, Labor Minister Hubertus Heil is expected at 9 a.m. at the Brandenburg Gate. Wednesday is International Women's Day — a public holiday in Berlin again this year. Numerous cultural events, rallies, and demonstrations will take place in the city.

STRUCTURAL CHANGE: How can politics succeed in better reaching people in more rural areas? With the opening of the Tesla Gigafactory in Grünheide in Brandenburg in spring 2022, a global corporation has settled there, underscoring Brandenburg's ambitions as an attractive industrial location. At the same time, the coal region of Brandenburg's Lausitz region is in the midst of a structural transformation away from the coal industry. On Thursday, the Schwarzkopf Foundation discusses the structural change with former state premier of Brandenburg Matthias Platzeck, starting at 5:30 p.m.

FRANCO-GERMAN-TICKET: Besides trying to save the Auto, Wissing, one of the Cabinet's frankophiles and frankophones, also spoke out in favor of a Europe-wide transport ticket similar to the €49 transport ticket valid throughout Germany to be introduced on May 1. "I think the European [thing] is a great idea, I’m already talking about it with my colleagues," he said at an event this week, adding that "a pan-European solution" would be "modern." Wissing noted that France wants to introduce a similar offer — and that could work well for a start: "I can well imagine that the next step will then be that we mutually recognize these tickets," he said.

THANK YOU: To Hans von der Burchard and Louis Westendarp who contributed reporting, to our editor Jones Hayden and producer Dato Parulava.

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By FLORIAN EDER with GABRIEL RINALDI SCHOLZ ON TOUR They have more things in common: But it's likely to not be all shmoozy between the two: Sanctions for China? Proof, please: ADVANCED CLASS: Rude awakening: Quite the move: On a closer look Risky move: Adding insult to injury: AUTO WARS: Berlin vs. Brussels: Wissing supports e-fuels: Decision postponed: HEATED DEBATES: Nein, says the opposition: One step back: SCHROEDINGER’S TIKTOK: No official use — verified profile: Who runs the account? Alles klar — but the government? COALITION WOES: Poor, poor Greens! ‘Crowbar approach’: Too far: Where's Scholz when you need him: GOVERNMENT MEETING CLIMATE CONSEQUENCES EQUAL PAY AND WOMEN’S DAY: STRUCTURAL CHANGE: FRANCO-GERMAN-TICKET: THANK YOU: Hans von der Burchard Louis Westendarp Jones Hayden Dato Parulava SUBSCRIBE to the POLITICO newsletter family: